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Professor’s Suicide Raises Waiting Period Issue



Sunday, August 10, 2014
The suicide of Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna — two days after she was released from a psychiatric ward and one day after she bought the handgun she turned on herself — is raising questions about whether Vermont should consider a waiting period for the purchase of a firearm.

Some gun control advocates support waiting periods as a way to offer a “cooling-off” period for someone considering committing an act of violence or suicide.

The nonprofit San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, for example, argues that waiting periods could help prevent impulsive behavior.

Although Vermont lawmakers say they’re willing to talk about waiting periods, the issue doesn’t appear to be a high priority. More attention, they said, appears to be going toward background checks.

Most acts of violence, especially suicide, are associated with impulsiveness, said Lindsey Zwicker, a staff attorney for the Law Center. A waiting period is meant to curb those acts.

However, Zwicker said, she is not aware of any hard evidence that waiting periods actually reduce violence or suicides.

“With a mandated waiting period, it would at least provide a cooling-off period, provide an opportunity for someone to seek help, allow them to reconsider, but we can’t say for sure what effect it would have,” Zwicker said.

Paul Henninge, Hanna’s husband, told the Valley News last week that his wife had been voluntarily admitted to the hospital twice for depression in the days prior to her suicide at their Burlington home. The 48-year-old Hanna, a prominent legal commentator in the state and the mother of two children, was released from the psychiatric ward of Fletcher Allen Health Care on a Friday, bought a gun on a Saturday and then shot herself on Sunday, July 27.

Henninge expressed concern that his wife was able to purchase a gun so quickly.

“She bought the gun the day before,” Henninge said. “It is shocking that somebody who had voluntarily admitted herself to the hospital” for psychiatric treatment was so easily able to buy a gun, he told the Valley News.

Burlington Police have still not said where Hanna bought the handgun.

Ten states — though not Vermont or New Hampshire — and the District of Columbia enforce waiting periods before a gun purchase. The waits range from 48 hours in Wisconsin to 10 days in Washington, D.C., and California to 14 days in Hawaii, the longest waiting period.

Some states apply waiting periods to all firearms while others enforce waiting periods only for handguns and assault weapons. The states with a waiting period for handguns include Florida, Maryland and New Jersey.

A five-day federal waiting period on sales of handguns was included in the interim provisions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. But the federal waiting period was removed from the final version of the legislation, which went into effect in November 1998.

The waiting period is also meant to allow law enforcement time to complete background checks, Zwicker said. For instance, federal law requires all licensed firearm dealers to conduct background checks, which are usually completed the same day the gun is purchased. But if the background check isn’t completed within three days, federal law allows the purchaser to buy the gun, whether or not he or she passes the background check.

In the wake of Hanna’s death, few legislators appear prepared to say they will support waiting periods, but several have said they are willing to have the discussion.

State Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, who was elected to the Legislature more than 20 years ago, said he has never supported gun control because Vermont is “a safe state and a state where a lot of people really love their guns so it’s a fight I don’t need.”

However, he said, he’s beginning to change his mind and would be willing to discuss background checks and waiting periods. This past legislative session, he introduced a safe storage bill. He said waiting periods and background checks strike him as “reasonable.”

“I am willing to consider what people think on the issue and if proposals come up I am willing to at least give it consideration,” McCormack said.

However, he stressed that he thinks the Legislature should never “pounce” on a particular episode, such as Hanna’s death, when making policy. He declined to discuss Hanna’s death, saying only that he feels great sympathy for her family.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin declined an interview request, saying through a spokeswoman that he expresses his “heartfelt sympathy to Cheryl Hanna’s family during this difficult time.”

Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Quechee, has been a strong proponent of background checks in Vermont, but said he’s not personally ready to bring up waiting periods and doesn’t plan to include such a provision in legislation he is drafting for background checks because he’s not convinced that waiting periods have been proven effective.

(Both Campbell and members of Gun Sense Vermont, a group in favor of stricter gun laws that started in Norwich after the 2012 massacre in a Newtown, Conn., school, have said their focus in the upcoming legislative session will be on background checks, not waiting periods.)

“How much time should go by? If (Hanna) bought the gun on a Saturday, couldn’t pick it up until Wednesday, would this still have occurred? That is a question that only she and her psychiatrist could answer,” Campbell said.

Nevertheless, he said, he was troubled by the facts surrounding Hanna’s suicide and if someone else were to raise the issue of waiting periods, he would welcome that discussion.

The larger issue, Campbell said, is how to treat people with mental illness.

Federal law prohibits the sale of firearms to people with a certain mental health history, including those found not guilty by reason of insanity, those found not competent to stand trial and those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.

Vermont and New Hampshire are two of 12 states that have no laws requiring that mental health information be submitted to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Even if Vermont did have such a requirement, it would not have applied to Hanna because she voluntarily admitted herself to Fletcher Allen Health Care. (Legislation that Gun Sense Vermont is working on would require Vermont to submit mental health information to the national database.)

Gun rights groups oppose any sort of waiting period. Ed Cutler, president and legislative director of Gun Owners of Vermont, said there is no guarantee that a waiting period would have prevented Hanna’s death because if someone is determined to commit suicide, he or she will find a way.

Suicide aside, Cutler said there are a number of reasons why a person might want to get access to a gun quickly, such as if a woman were in an abusive relationship and felt she needed a gun quickly to protect herself.

“The beauty of being able to defend yourself is that you can run out and get (a gun) if you don’t have one,” said Cutler, a Westminster, Vt., resident.

A waiting period also could present a problem for the hunter visiting for the two-week deer hunting season who discovers his gun has malfunctioned. A waiting period could throw off the hunter’s entire season, Cutler said.

State Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, who talks openly about her battles with major depression in the 1990s, said she understands that society wants to try to prevent suicides.

But she said there is also a bigger question. “Somebody who is legally competent, what are their rights to make a decision that their life is not worth living? That is their right,” Donahue said. “We are talking about the fundamental right to determine one’s own future. …”

Donahue said she does not think a waiting period, even one as long as 14 days, would be effective because contemplating suicide is not a rapidly resolved matter.

The focus, she said, should be on improving mental health services — Hanna spent three days in an emergency room because there weren’t enough psychiatric beds in the state — and addressing the stigma that prevents people from seeking help when they are suffering from severe depression.

“A person who is in that depth of hopelessness and feeling that their life has no hope, that there is no way out of the pain, they are not going to be better in three days,” Donahue said.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.